Sculpting spirituality - A Duluth doctor finds art and healing in the rocks of Chester Creek
(Note: The ACLU, one would think, would jump on this one -- but it's doubtful, since this sort of thing isn't in the ACLU agenda.)
June 13, 2004
By Linda Hanson, staff writer or 218-723-5335
Duluth, Minnesota
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The cool waters of Duluth's Chester Creek swirled around Joel Carter's feet. His eyes scanned the creek bed, looking for a promising rock amid the gurgling root-beer-colored water.

Carter hefted a stone the size of a loaf of bread on top of a waist-high tower of rocks. With small adjustments, he settled it to where it would balance.

The rock structures Carter creates are like those made by the Inuit people in the Arctic. They are called "inuksuit," which means "man of stone that points the way."

Inuksuit are found in the Arctic areas of Alaska, Canada and Greenland. They are used to convey messages, such as giving directions, or they mark where something important happened.

For Carter, making inuksuit has become a way to express his spirituality.

Joel Carter splashes water from Chester Creek on his finished rock stack creation to give it a clean, fresh appearance.

Image: Joel Carter splashes water from Chester Creek on his finished rock stack creation to give it a clean, fresh appearance.

Chester Creek is his sanctuary. The creek leaps down the hill toward Lake Superior over and around rocks formed more than a billion years ago by molten lava.

Here, amid the pines and willows and rocks and water, Carter has found healing.


Carter, 43, recently published a book called "Rockpeople: The Chester Creek Inuksuit Anthology," which includes his poetry and photos of his rock creations. He also published a book this year called "Lava Lamp Lessons," in which he wrote about everything from his dog, Teva, to his life as an emergency room physician.

There's a difference between being a physician and being a healer, he believes.

"Healing is a mystery," Carter said. "It's about soul work, about learning more of who you are and allowing your body to teach you what you need."

The most powerful medicine, he believes, is choice. He tells patients they are the authors of their own lives. They can add plot twists and characters -- it's up to them.

Carter's own soul-searching has changed the way he views medicine and how he connects with patients. Although he is a traditionally trained doctor, he has come to see the limitations of that training. Medicine is technical, but life isn't, he said.

Carter believes in the importance of mind, body and spirit in healing. He jokes that a number of year ago his left brain -- the logical, linear side -- blew up because it had been stuffed with too much data.

"I've had a lot of healing in my life in the last few years," he said.

While Carter practices acute medical care at St. Luke's hospital in Duluth, he also is interested in palliative medicine and caring for people at the end of life. He has been awarded a Bush Fellowship to train in end-of-life medicine for a year at Harvard University. He expects to move to the Boston area later this year.

"The beginning and the end of life have always been very sacred places," Carter said. "Everyone's very happy when you pop into the world. It's also a very sacred time when you pop out of the world."

Carter enjoys talking with patients about their lives. "They have incredible insight," he said.

Whether it's someone dying of cancer or an elderly couple who have been married for decades, when he asks people the secret to living a good life, they always offer him some version of "Just be kind."

"The meaning of life is very simple," Carter said. "Love each other."

Patients have helped him on his spiritual journey. He writes about some of those experiences in "Lava Lamp Lessons," such as the time he witnessed a dying man give a final handshake of thanks to the doctor who was treating him.

"A lot of physicians don't realize the patient is there to give us gifts as well," he said. "... There's something about the interaction of patients and doctors that is healing for both."


In Judaism, rocks symbolize the enduring human soul.

Carter, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was raised in a secular Jewish home. His mother is a former teacher and his father is a retired doctor and a Holocaust survivor from Poland.

During World War II, his father's family was among the half-million Jews the Nazis confined to a walled section of Warsaw called the ghetto. Many died from hunger or disease or were shipped to the Treblinka extermination camp in northeastern Poland. In April 1943, the 60,000 Jews who remained in the ghetto revolted against the Nazis. Almost all were killed.

Carter's grandmother died in Treblinka and his grandfather is believed to have died in Treblinka or the ghetto uprising.

Before the uprising, his father escaped the ghetto. He was about 10 years old and spent the rest of the war hiding in safe houses.

The Holocaust cast a shadow on Carter's family for years.

In 2000, Carter and his father visited Poland. When they went to Treblinka, Carter was amazed to see thousands of jagged rocks set in concrete as a memorial to the 800,000 Jews who died at Treblinka. In the center of the field was a large stone monument.

The stone structure reminded him of the inuksuit he had started building along Chester Creek about six months before that trip. He felt like he had unknowingly been preparing for what he would find at Treblinka.

Amid the field of stones, where the ashes of some of Treblinka's victims are buried, Carter and his father said a short memorial service for Carter's grandparents. Carter left two stones from the shore of Lake Superior in honor of his grandparents.

The trip brought Carter and his father closer and helped the family heal.


Maureen Strange of Duluth has seen Carter change over the five years she's known him. They met in a yoga class and later she invited Carter to speak to a women's health class she teaches at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Strange also is a health educator for St. Louis County.

Strange discovered Carter was a compelling storyteller and captivated her students by talking about his experiences as a doctor and sharing his views on healing.

"He talks about the importance of storytelling and remembering in families and in passing along information," she said.

Strange has seen Carter grow into his own as an artist since his divorce four years ago.

"I have seen him blossom," said Strange, who adds that she has grown through knowing him.

"He has the ability to bring you out," she said. "He lets you know it's OK to explore and try to find yourself."

June Kallestad, a friend of Carter's who lives in Cloquet, said Carter began doing the rock sculptures for fun, but they turned into something deep and personal.

"My sense is that it was something that evolved out of a need within himself," she said.

What strikes her about the sculptures is their connection to nature, she said.

Carter usually builds the rock sculptures alone. But Kallestad helped him build one that's included in the book. It's called "June."

"When you're working with the stones and responding to them and getting them to balance, it's magical," she said. "It's amazing it actually works and they find a point where they connect and balance. The simplicity of it amazes me."

Carter has helped Kallestad appreciate rocks.

"You don't notice a rock sitting on the ground by itself when you're walking by it," she said. "Then you pick it up, wash it off and put it with other rocks. It takes on a personality and a sort of human shape. ... It's beautiful."


Rocks can teach you a lot about life, Carter believes.

Making a rock structure requires focus and patience. While he's making one, he lives in the moment. The rocks become his palette. He looks for ones with interesting colors or shapes or ones that make striking combinations. He gives the completed works names, such as "Little Buddha" and "Morning Glory."

Sometimes, he'll delicately balance a rock on its pointed end. What seems to be impossible is possible, he said.

Carter used to feel bad when he would return to one of his creations and find it had toppled on its own or had been smashed by an anonymous person he calls the "Rock Stalker."

But he drew a lesson from the experience. It taught him to let go.

It also led him to photograph his creations so he'd have a way to keep them. And that led to compiling his book.

Carter's years of spiritual seeking have led him to explore yoga, meditation, organized religions and the beliefs of indigenous people. His trip to Poland helped him connect with his Jewish roots.

"I think spirituality for me is about finding and creating your own rituals," he said.

Carter hopes people who read his books become motivated to find their own creative outlets. He hopes his inuksuit -- his rock people -- point the way for people to live fuller lives. Just as they've done for him.

To learn more:

Joel Carter has written two books: "Rockpeople: The Chester Creek Inuksuit Anthology" (Canukshuk Artworks, 2004, $14.95) and "Lava Lamp Lessons" (Canukshuk Artworks, 2004, $9.95.) To buy them, check Duluth area bookstores and art galleries or go to Prints of his photos also will be available for sale on the Web site.